Why not start your Paddy’s Day with a little Irish music? And a movie?
No, we’re not talking Chieftains, Clancy Brothers, or Celtic Thunder. At least not right now.
We’re talking about Rory Gallagher, the Ballyshannon-born guitar sensation who enthralled a mob of hundreds of thousands at the final Isle of Wight concert in August 1970 with his band, Taste.
Gallagher’s power trio (with bassist Richard McCracken and drummer John Wilson) only released a couple albums during its short-lived run, including an LP recording of its historic Friday afternoon gig at Afton Down. Gallagher went on to enjoy a modestly successful solo career in the ‘70s and ‘80s but never hit the big time like other Isle of Wight alumni (The Who, ELP, Chicago) despite his considerable guitar god chops and charismatic presence.
Sadly, he died in 1995 from alcohol-related illnesses.
But Gallagher lives on in his music…and on celluloid. Filmmaker Murray Lerner captured most of the goings-on at Isle of Wight that year—including sets by Jethro Tull and Moody Blues—and used his 16mm footage to produce an acclaimed documentary the commemorate the concert’s twenty-fifth anniversary (Message of Love: The Isle of Wight Festival).
More recently, Lerner’s played the point man in the restoration and issuance of DVDs containing separate sets by the weekend’s many disparate acts (The Who, Moody Blues). Last year’s Taste: What’s Going On—Live at The Isle of Wight (Eagle Rock) reminded classic rock fans just how sensational Gallagher’s Stratocaster skills were for the era (Jimi Hendrix deferred to Rory as being the best guitarist) and sparked renewed interest in the Irish ax-man’s oeuvre…just in time for Wight’s forty-fifth anniversary.
Now the film will be given a special screening at The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame and Museum: Taste: What’s Going On airs Wednesday, March 16 in the Foster Theater (fourth Floor) at 7:00pm.
Admission is free for Rock Hall members, $5.50 for guests (depending on capacity) at tickets.rockhall.com
The film will also be shown as part of the 2016 Irish Film Festival in Boston this Saturday.
Eagle Rock’s blu-Ray / DVD edition chronicles the short history of Taste, Gallagher’s guitar influences (and impact), and most of the trio’s time on stage at Afton. The surprisingly crisp-looking archival clips are juxtaposed by modern-day reflections and commentary by fellow guitar greats (and Rory fans) Brian May (Queen), The Edge (U2), and Larry Coryell. Bonuses include three tracks from the German TV series Beat Club: “If The Day Was Any Longer,” “It’s Happened Before, It’ll Happen Again,” and “Morning Sun.” The disc also contains conceptual music videos for the tracks “I’ll Remember,” “What’s Going On,” and “Born On The Wrong Side Of Time.”
We spoke with the Academy Award-winning Lerner (From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China) by phone to discuss the historic festival concert and his memories of the movie-making process. The director—who who’ll be in attendance at the Rock Hall for the screening (and a Q&A)—shared his thoughts on the Isle of Wight, of Taste…and of Rory Gallagher’s significance in rock history.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Can you tell us how the Taste concert film came about? You shot the entire Isle of Wight Festival and used a lot of footage for your Message to Love documentary in 1995, but what made now the right time for a standalone Taste film?
MURRAY LERNER: Well, what happened was that the outfit that controls the rights, Strange Music—they called me. His nephew said they finally wanted to make a film out of it. They offered me the financing and the rights. It’s been years! We’d been discussing it for years. But they finally wanted to do it, and I thought, “Okay. This is the time.” It was a very good experience. They really went all the way with the backing.
EXAMINER: What was it like, being there for the entire weekend, shooting all those bands—most of whom are now legendary?
MURRAY LERNER: It was more than the weekend. I was there two weeks before the festival, and two weeks after! It was a very, very thorough involvement. What I was trying to do was blend the background with the performances. Especially showing the business pressures, the business side of it, in contrast to the music. And I think I did that! That’s what interested me. It was very exciting, and who knew there would be 600,000 people there? It was overwhelming, and in a way frightening! I worried about that crowd, because it they wanted to rush you, there was no way you could stand against them. But nothing happened, whereas at Woodstock some people were actually killed. There were no fatalities at the Isle of Wight.
EXAMINER: I don’t think I knew that. I knew there was a death at Altamont during the Rolling Stones show, but not at Woodstock.
MURRAY LERNER: Yeah, yeah. Woodstock had a few deaths. They didn’t talk about it, but they did. But yes, Isle of Wight was an exciting experience, and I was finally able to do something in depth that I’d be wanted to do for a long time, which was to show all the different sides of the music business.
EXAMINER: I’d read somewhere that the Wight organizers spent like, the entire previous year planning for the event, and that they were upset so many people got in without paying. After a while, they just threw up their hands and chalked it up as a financial loss. Is that one reason why we don’t see so many big festivals anymore?
MURRAY LERNER: I think it’s a question of, “Was it a financial loss?” I don’t know. In other words, they said it was, but I don’t know if it was.
EXAMINER: I take your point [laughs]! But apart from well-sponsored traveling package tours like Lollapalooza, you don’t see many of these big events. Certainly none that draws in a half million people to a single isolated location.
MURRAY LERNER: It was the biggest and the last. And don’t forget, look what happened with The Who. They had a concert where a number of people were trampled and killed. But that didn’t happen.
EXAMINER: I always wondered, how many cameras did you have to work with at Wight? What were the logistics, as far as what you could shoot and where your crew as allowed to be?
MURRAY LERNER: We had nine cameras. Nine crews, including myself. I directed, but I also shot periodically. When you say, “allowed to be,” sometimes the audience got mad at us for blocking their view, mad at us for trying to interview them and interpret them. But in general, they saw my determination and my interest in doing it right. So I got a lot of cooperation from the audience-and from the performers.
EXAMINER: When I watched the Taste DVD I noticed you could occasionally see a cameraman or two crawling around up there, in between the musicians. Maybe you’re one of them.
MURRAY LERNER: You see me once for a little bit there, right! It was a small group, so we had four or five cameras. It was very intense, and we were there for every important moment. My crew really…I didn’t know what they knew about things [laughs] but they really got into the spirit of things. It was exciting. Rory was a genius in a way, you know? It was interesting to me because I’d spent a lot of time in Ireland. I was involved with a lot of Irish folk music. But I never knew about the blues until Rory Gallagher. So it was a new experience for me! I never thought that those two would blend, but Rory was able to do that.
EXAMINER: You shot the Newport Folk Festival a few years prior to Isle of Wight. Was the vibe different for Wight, given the number of plugged-in electric rock bands and style of music?
MURRAY LERNER: Oh yes, totally different! In a way, some of the same events were happening at Newport, but I didn’t know they were gonna happen. So in Newport I decided, “I’ve got to show what’s happening behind the scenes.” And as time went on, I knew the music business was corrupting the idealism of the music and making a business out of it. I wanted to show that, to blend those ideas. With Taste…they were involved in the machinations the business side. They decided to break up because of their arguments about their manager. So they were involved in it. But otherwise, I didn’t know much about Taste until the Isle of Wight. But that was good, because it was so refreshing to me.
EXAMINER: Everybody generally knows that Hendrix played Woodstock. But he also played Wight. Between him and Rory and some of the other guitarists, it must have been sensational. I wasn’t even born yet in 1970, so films like this one are terrific because folks my age can see what we missed. All these bands we grew up to eventually love, now we’re able to go back and watch them perform as they were when they were young, baby-faced, and just starting out.
MURRAY LERNER: Rory really was…a lot of people that I’ve called about him on the business side have said he was a genius. He just died too young, I guess. But he was incredible. What happens when I run my film, we’ll see what happens at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When I run the film for a group, it really is mesmerizing, and people get caught up. The audience at Wight got caught up in it in a way I’ve never seen before. And it’s so strange that the band was in the middle of breaking up [laughs]! And the film, it’s one of the few where people in the audience—the movie audience—are clapping throughout. Every screening we’ve had, the people clap at the end of most of the numbers.
EXAMINER: Do you suppose Rory Gallagher gets short shrift? I mean, when considered in the whole of rock history—or even in the context of “Irish rockers” like Thin Lizzy, U2, Van Morrison—do you think Rory gets overlooked? Lost in the shuffle?
MURRAY LERNER: Yes, I think he’s very well known in Ireland. In parts of Ireland—Cork, for instance. There’s even a statue of him. But yeah, he’s overlooked. Without question. Maybe this film will change that. And your review [laughs]!
WHAT: WHAT’S GOING ON – TASTE LIVE AT THE ISLE OF WIGHT 1970
WHEN: WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16 AT 7:00PM
WHERE: THE FOSTER THEATER AT THE ROCK AND ROLL
HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM (FOURTH FLOOR)
1100 E. 9th Street
Cleveland, OH 44114